Leroy Blea, a Board Member and volunteer with Dorothy Day House for six years, has been a constant friendly face each week for the unhoused in the Berkeley community. Every Saturday, he helps serve our community breakfast meal.
What brought you to serve with Dorothy Day House? How did you join the Board of Directors?
When I was starting as a food volunteer I was going through a very difficult time in my life and exploring spirituality in general – service became a way I was able to practice spirituality in an empowered way, because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power to help. The catalyst to this was attending a talk given by one of Dorothy Day’s grandkids – the hook of it was understanding that you didn’t have to be a saint, and that it was possible to just be a person in service to others.
I liked this idea, and it became important to me to find somewhere to serve that was like that. Just like that, I had done a google search, found Dorothy Day House here in Berkeley and was welcomed into the fold immediately. I was so connected to DDH initially because it had this diverse group of people that had been volunteering for decades, and I had never seen that type of base, where everyone was so deeply connected to the mission of the organization. I always enjoy coming in each Saturday because it allows me to focus on nothing but making sure people are fed.
I joined the Board of Directors after being approached by a previous member of the Board during a regular Community Breakfast. She had heard about my background in public health and I agreed to go to a meeting. I ended up joining the Board officially now a little over 6 years ago.
In addition to being a volunteer and a Board Member, you have also been a longtime donor. What prompts you to donate to Dorothy Day House?
When I joined the Board, what I noticed to was that every single dollar, every penny even was really going to do good in the community. There wasn’t any place where there was any waste – everything was in service to the population and an ideal that everyone deserves healthcare, housing, food, and a safe space. That is something I am particularly proud of as a Board Member.
What has kept you involved with Dorothy Day House in all the ways you are involved?
There is a very tangible value of kindness, to recognize the dignity of anybody as they walk in the door. This agency is generous to you in a way that inspires generosity from the people we help as well – in a way we are all saving each other. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that homelessness could happen to anyone – we see ourselves in the people we are helping.
Another thing that sets us apart is that our paid staff are for the most part people who have experienced being homeless and having food security issues, mental health issues, and have experienced hardship in our lives. I have had homeless and incarcerated family members and have struggled with depression. It’s important to bring those parts of us into our service – our communities that we serve are a big part of our leadership team at DDH – the person who originally trained me as a volunteer was living in a car. I am also in recovery. A big part of my service is an understanding that loneliness and mental health are universal human experiences. Being able to provide respite from the streets for others is all a part of making progress and doing better. We have an influence on individuals being served that is seen in them acquiring jobs and people being housed. There’s a pulse of generosity throughout the unhoused community and the nexus is Dorothy Day. I am also constantly moved by how mission driven the organization is. For all of us that volunteer and work here, this is more than just a job. Dorothy Day House has become very well known in our area - we are the people trusted to be kind and confer dignity in the work that they do.
There’s a sense in the people that are volunteering here that it means something – but there’s a real diversity in what that means. I see people coming to the door and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who they think we are – what matters is how we make people feel: safe, respected, and nurtured.
You mentioned that many of the individuals currently connected with and working for Dorothy Day have direct experience with many of the issues the community you serve faces. How does your personal experience inform your ability to connect with the unhoused and vulnerable?
The opposite of recovery is loneliness and disconnect. Healing and solutions and being a part of the network is part of recovery. I work in a community-oriented field, I have a large recovery family, I talk about mental health as a part of my experience, and I am looking for places to be a whole person – and to return what was given to me in the way of support and healing. People have gifted their stories to me, and that helps us heal together. The world can be an injurious place. There can be a point in your life when nothing seems to work – far away from employment and physical health, Dorothy Day House is the beginning of that being resolved. DDH is a place that can link you to other places to get help. Me being able to give back is how I know I have gotten better. I know what it is like to need help. Being able to serve is a gift of that experience.
Because many individuals that currently work for us have these shared experiences, it allows Dorothy Day House to approach each problem with a totally unique solution – even if each solution must happen in a different order. If someone is addicted to substances, we have an opportunity to address all these other foundational issues they may be facing that are holding them back from recovery – a lack of shelter, food, or safety, for instance.
I have a special place in my heart for the people that appear to be shouting at the world or shouting at other people. I have had my own experiences being in a mental health crisis, and it has been a major part of healing to be able to assist others through theirs.
That’s why I will be supporting Dorothy Day House’s upcoming initiative to raise 10K in 10 Days—from October 18 through the 28. The overwhelming majority of our hands on deck here are volunteers, which allows us to direct contributed dollars where they matter the most: to our programs serving those most in need in Berkeley. Your contribution can ensure that DDH can continue to meet the moment for our unhoused neighbors.
Will you help us reach our goal? Mark your calendars for October 18!